The new afterlife: How tech is helping people live forever

Ideas

These tech entrepreneurs are making death optional or changing how people deal with loss

Technology has transformed everything from what we eat, to international currency and even how we fall in love. Now today’s best entrepreneurial minds have set their sights on disrupting a far more challenging (and taboo) subject: Death.

Earlier this week a Silicon Valley-based startup called Nectome went public with a high-tech embalming process it says can preserve a human brain so it can later be uploaded to a digital cloud. The idea is that an individual’s consciousness — complete with quirks and memories — could then live forever. The downside? The fatal “treatment” is only possible through euthanasia because it requires a fresh, healthy brain for the procedure to work.

“If the brain is dead, it’s like your computer is off, but that doesn’t mean the information isn’t there” says @KennethHayworth, president of @Lets_Upgrade, in MIT Review. ‏

Right now the startup is still years away from commercialization, but the industry seems to be backing it nonetheless. Up to this point, it’s been awarded a $960,000 from the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health and raised $1 million in funding (with some of that amount from Y Combinator).

Of course, Nectome’s current success and ability to top news reports around the world isn’t shocking. The death market is a booming billion-dollar industry. It’s also one more reason analysts see it as a sector on the rise not just in North America, but also in influential markets like China.

In Canada, death services is a $1.6 billion industry, according to a report by the Toronto Star. The same story found Ontarians invested approximately $2 billion in funeral arrangements.

Is the ‘death market’ the next gold mine?

 
Everyone passes away at some point. In fact, death is a universal constant that impacts every person regardless of ethnicity, occupation or nationality. This makes it ripe for disruption and a slew of new startups are ready to do just that.

Entrepreneurs are creating new ways that either preserve a person’s life or make the death process easier.

Jevin Maltais, co-founder of a legal will generator called Willowbee, is one of those forward-thinking innovators. His startup helps consumers create wills that spell out everything from marriage to end-of-life care. Kevin Oulds, the founder of Willfull, another online legal will startup sees the digitification of services like estate planning become more and more popular.

“End-of-life and estate planning is just starting to move online, and it’s an industry that has a lot of potential for growth in the online space,” he explains. “Already I’ve seen everything from online memorial sites, to Facebook’s Legacy tool, which allows you to assign a contact who will convert your profile to a memorial account after you pass away, and of course online wills.”

For consumers hoping to use death services or industry-affiliated ones, it’s important to do your own extensive research first. “There are services online now that didn’t exist five years ago where you can talk with a therapist, invest your money and make an estate plan for an affordable price compared to traditional lawyers,” Oulds explains. “The key with services like [this] is trust, ease-of-use, cost, and time commitment. Users want to know they can trust that the documents created as legally-sound – we worked with several estate lawyers to create ours.”

The money behind living forever

 
Of course, eternal life comes with a price. Willful charges as little as $99 for its services while Nectome’s deadly procedure comes with a refundable $10,000 deposit.

Death-defying startups

  • Alcor: The Scottsdale company will freeze your dead body for $200,000 US (plus another $10,000 surcharge for users outside of North America or China) so it can be revived in the future.
  • Unity biotechnology: This biotech startup is focused on extending life through medicine that halts or reverses ageing so humans can live longer, fuller lives.
  • Calico: This Google-backed venture is still top secret but it’s working on creating a way to bring people back from major illnesses.

For tech enthusiasts looking at other digital alternatives, Eternime may be able to help. The startup, currently in beta testing, saves an individual’s online activity. It later uses that information to create a digital ghost that can interact with loved ones.

So far, the company has signed up almost 40,000 users. “This isn’t technology that is decades away,” founder Marius Ursache says in an interview with TechCrunch. “Building lifelike avatars is an iterative process. Think of it like search results; they’ll just get better and better, more and more accurate as time goes on.”

While the future is unknowable, the desire to live forever is an existential issue that has fascinated scholars for centuries. It’s only now that technology may be able to solve this complex problem once and for all.

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